Gripped by surging pandemic, US employers cut back on hiring

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Agnes Makokha, 45, of Columbus, Ohio, stands outside her apartment Friday, December 4, 2020. Makokha is among millions of Americans at risk of losing unemployment benefits come Dec. 26. She lost her job in December and due to hiring freezes in place since the pandemic began, has been unable to find employment. (AP Photo/Farnoush Amiri)

WASHINGTON – With the viral pandemic accelerating across the country, America’s employers sharply scaled back their hiring last month, adding 245,000 jobs, the fewest since April and the fifth straight monthly slowdown.

At the same time, the unemployment rate fell to a still-high 6.7%, from 6.9% in October as many people stopped looking for work and were no longer counted as unemployed, the Labor Department said. November’s job gain was down drastically from a 610,000 gain in October.

Friday’s report provided the latest evidence that the job market and economy are faltering in the face of a virus that has been shattering daily records for confirmed infections. Economic activity is likely to slow further with health officials warning against all but essential travel and states and cities limiting gatherings, restricting restaurant dining and reducing the hours and capacity of bars, stores and other businesses.

Most experts say the economy and job market won’t be able to fully recover until the virus can be controlled with an effective and widely used vaccine. And the picture could worsen before it improves.

“The recovery is not insulated from the effects of the pandemic,” said Daniel Zhao, senior economist at employment website Glassdoor. “This is the calm before the storm. We face a long and difficult winter ahead."

The jobs slowdown comes at a particularly fraught time. Two enhanced federal unemployment benefit programs are set to expire at the end of this month — just as viral cases are surging and colder weather is shutting down outdoor dining and many public events. Unless Congress enacts another rescue aid package, more than 9 million unemployed people will be left without any jobless aid, state or federal, beginning after Christmas.

Renewed efforts in Congress to reach a deal have picked up momentum. A bipartisan group of senators has proposed a $900 billion plan that would include expanded unemployment benefits, more small business loans and aid to state and local governments. President Donald Trump has voiced support for more financial assistance, though key differences between the two sides remain.

Speaking at a news conference Friday in Wilmington, Delaware, President-elect Joe Biden said the jobs report was “grim” and “shows an economy that is stalling.” Biden urged Congress to act quickly to approve another rescue aid package.